Canon 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

14th Jun 2012 | 11:30

Canon 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

Full-frame DSLRs go head to head

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

While the current trend among many manufacturers is towards decreasing the size of their cameras, many enthusiast photographers aspire to owning a larger DSLR with a full-frame sensor.

In some cases, these would-be full-frame shooters have a collection of lenses originally intended for use with a film SLR that they want to use without the APS-C format cropping of smaller SLRs.

They may also yearn for the additional control over depth of field that comes as a result of having a bigger sensor, and the enhanced image quality brought by that larger sensor is a huge draw for those looking to produce the best shots possible.

Naturally, these plus points come at a cost - a pretty big one. In fact, the Canon EOS-1DX (available in June) and Nikon D3X have retail prices in excess of £5,000/$6,500.

Fortunately, both brands offer more affordable options in the guise of the recently announced Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Nikon D800. With retail prices of £2,999/$3,499 and £2,599/$2,999 respectively, these cameras are still expensive, and neither would be an impulse purchase, but they are the most likely full-frame options for an enthusiast photographer.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

In this head-to-head test, we put them both through their paces to find out which is the best buy.

Headline features

After all the excitement of Nikon announcing the D800 with its 36.3 million pixel sensor, the 22.3 million pixel Canon EOS 5D Mark III seemed something of an anti-climax for some when it was announced roughly three weeks later.

This is hardly surprising when you consider that the Nikon D800 offers a pixel count three times that of the D700, while the 5D Mark III's pixel count is only 1.2 million higher than the 5D Mark II that it replaces. Even so, it has 4.2MP more than the 18.1MP Canon EOS-1DX, which sits at the top of Canon's DSLR lineup.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

Thanks to its eight-channel readout and DIGIC 5 processing engine, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III can shoot continuously at a maximum rate of up to 6fps, while the Nikon D800's Expeed 3 engine enables it to shoot full-resolution images at up to four frames per second (fps).

Given its higher pixel count, it's not surprising that the Nikon D800's native sensitivity range (ISO 100-6400) is more restricted than the Canon 5D Mark III's, which runs from ISO 100-25600. Both cameras have expansion settings that enable the sensitivity to be reduced to the equivalent of ISO 50, and while the D800's maximum is ISO 25600, the 5D Mark III's is two stops higher, at ISO 102400.

This suggests that the Canon camera is a better option in low light than the Nikon, and we will be looking at noise levels carefully.

An HDR mode is an interesting addition to the Canon EOS 5D series, and Canon has made it of use to experienced photographers by enabling them to record all three of the constituent images as raw and/or JPEG files, as well as the merged shot.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

The D800 also has an HDR option that enables images to be shot with up to 3EV exposure variance, but it's a JPEG-only option and only the final, merged image is saved to the card.

On the subject of memory cards, Canon and Nikon have opted for the same dual card approach with the two cameras, and both have CF and SD/SDHC/SDXC card ports. So far the Nikon D4 is the only camera to feature a port for the new XQD format.

Those upgrading from an APS-C format camera may be surprised to discover that Canon doesn't consider a pop-up flash essential to its full-frame cameras. Nikon, however, takes a more generous approach, and the D800 has a built-in flash with a Guide Number (GN) of 12m at ISO 100. Helpfully, this flash supports Nikon's Advanced Wireless Lighting system, and can be used to control compatible flashguns without a cable connection.

Build and handling

Both cameras are built to a high standard, and are designed to cope with use in environments that would prove too hostile for an entry-level camera. Canon tells us that the 5D Mark III's weatherproofing is better than the Mark II's, and it's on a par with the EOS 7D's.

While the two cameras appear equally robust externally, with a claimed life of 200,000 cycles, the D800's shutter should outlast the 5D Mark III's.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

Canon and Nikon each have a loyal following, and both bands of users will feel broadly at home with their respective brand's camera and the approach to setting exposure and so on. However, the introduction of features such as Live View and video recording mean that the way we use a DSLR is changing, and consequently manufacturers need to adapt their camera control layout.

Both cameras on test have a switch for swapping between stills and video Live View modes. On the 5D Mark III the Start/Stop button surrounded by the Live View switch is used to start and stop video recording once the video Live View mode is activated.

The D800, however, has a dedicated button on is top plate, to the left of the shutter release, which is used to instigate video recording (the button with the red dot below). While there is logic to having a dedicated button, it seems odd to put it on the top of the camera when you're more likely to be looking at the screen on its back.

Canon 5D MK III vs Nikon D800

We will discuss the autofocus systems in more depth later, but it's worth noting here that the Nikon D800 uses a different approach to the D700 for setting the focus and AF point selection modes. The D800 has a switch and button to left of the lens mount, which is used in conjunction with the camera's two control dials. Rotating the rear dial switches between Single AF (AF-S) and Continuous AF (AF-C), while the front dial is used to toggle between the AF point selection options.

Helpfully, the focus mode and AF point selection mode is displayed in the viewfinder of the D800. While the 5D Mark III also displays the AF point selection mode in the viewfinder, it uses symbols in the AF point array to indicate the selected option, and this isn't quite as clear as the D800's approach.

Performance

Screen performance

Canon and Nikon have been equally generous with the size of the screens on the cameras, and both have a 3.2-inch unit. However, with a resolution of 1,040,000 dots, the 5D Mark III's monitor trumps the 921,000-dot device on the D800. The gap between the panel and the glass cover is filled with an optical resin in both screens, and this helps to limit reflections.

Although we found that the Canon screen does a particularly good job of controlling reflections, subjects appear marginally sharper in the D800's screen when using it to aid manual focus. However, this isn't entirely down to the screen - the higher-resolution images don't need enlarging quite so much on-screen to make the subject a comfortable size for focusing.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

It isn't a major issue, but when shooting an identical composition we found that we were usually able to achieve manual focus more quickly and with fewer back and forth adjustments with the D800 than with the 5D Mark III.

There have been a few reports of the D800's screen having a slight green cast, and it's something we observed on a few occasions during the course of this test. We found it was an issue when there was a slight green note to the image, and the screen appears to enhance or over-saturate the green, creating an obvious cast.

Metering on test

As you would expect from two high-end cameras, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III's and Nikon D800's metering systems can cope with most situations, but neither is entirely foolproof.

The D800's 3D Colour Matrix Metering III system, which uses a 91,000 pixel RGB sensor that informs the scene recognition system, for example, appears to be prone to slightly over-exposing scenes on occasion for no obvious reason. When photographing a cyclist peddling along a road on a bright but overcast day, for example, we had to reduce the exposure by 2/3EV during part of the shoot.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

As this scene contained a face (although quite distant in some shots) it is possible that the exposure resulted from the 3D Colour Matrix Metering III's face detection system exposing for the face. In reflex mode the face detection system doesn't influence the focusing system, just the exposure and there is no indication of whether the camera has detected a face or not.

Most of the occasional exposure errors introduced by the Canon 5D Mark III's iFCL metering can usually be attributed to the fact that it gives weighting to the subject under the active AF point, and if it is considerably brighter or darker than a midtone, the image may be under or over-exposed accordingly. Neither of these problems is a major issue and they don't arise that often, but they are worth bearing in mind, especially at the start of a long shooting sequence.

Focus on autofocus

With 61 individually selectable points, of which 41 are cross-type, the 5D Mark III's AF system would seem, on paper at least, to be a little ahead of the D800's, which has 51 points (15 cross-type). In use, however, the extra 10 aren't that noticeable, and both cameras prove adept at keeping up with moving subjects even in quite low light.

Those upgrading from an APS-C format camera, or who use a compact system camera, will notice that both these full-frame DSLRs suffer from the fact that all the AF points are clustered around the centre of the frame, with none towards the edges. This is annoying when shooting subjects that are far off-centre.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

One advantage that the D800's Multi-Cam 3500 FX autofocus system has over the 5D Mark III's is that the central 11 AF points are sensitive down to f/8. This means that it is still possible to focus automatically when using lens and teleconverter arrangements that have a maximum effective aperture of f/8.

A 200-400mm f/4 lens mounted via a 2x teleconverter, for example, effectively becomes a 400-800mm f/8 lens. If this were mounted on the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, the autofocus system would be unable to function properly, but the D800's would soldier on. This is especially useful for wildlife photographers wishing to avoid the expense and weight of very long telephoto lenses.

The autofocus system inside the 5D Mark III is a serious upgrade on the one in the Mark II, and Canon has given the new camera a dedicated menu screen to accommodate the newly introduced options.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

However, the option to adjust tracking sensitivity and acceleration/deceleration tracking adds a new layer of complication, and to simplify matters Canon has included a number of 'Cases' that set up the camera's AF system to respond in a particular way. While these help, they also take a little fathoming out themselves.

The AF system in the D800 is similarly complex, and there are no example cases, but the language used in the menu is a little more straightforward to understand.

White balance and colour

While both cameras produce images with pleasant colours in most natural light conditions when their automatic white balance systems are used, the Canon EOS 5D Mark III leans towards warm tones while the Nikon D800 seems to favour cool notes. Naturally, these small shifts appear more dramatic when images from each of the two cameras are compared side-by-side.

Colours are generally handled well at the lower sensitivity settings, but at very high sensitivity values in low light, both cameras are prone to losing some tonal gradation, especially with red subjects.

Noise and detail

Thanks to its 36.3 million pixel sensor, the D800 is able to resolve an incredible amount of detail. In fact, our resolution chart tests show that it doesn't fall too far short of the medium-format Pentax 645D, which has a 44 x 33mm sensor with 40 million pixels. While the 5D Mark III can't quite compete with such class-leading resolution, it nevertheless records a lot of detail.

Because it has such a high pixel count, we might reasonably expect the D800 to produce images that suffer from high levels of noise a little earlier in the sensitivity range than the 5D Mark III. While this is generally true, Nikon has done a remarkably good job of controlling the problem. Scrutinising images from the two cameras reveals that the story is quite complex, with aspects such as light level and colour temperature making a difference to the final results.

Even when the sensitivity levels are pushed up as far as ISO 6400, images taken in decent light still look very good. However, when light levels fall, chroma noise becomes more of an issue, especially in the shadows. Low-light images taken at the 5D Mark III's maximum extension setting (ISO 102400) look especially soft and smudgy.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

Comparing JPEG images captured with the two cameras at ISO 25600 with their high-ISO noise reduction system set to their default 'Normal' or 'Standard' values reveals that the D800 generally records more chroma noise.

However, the shots from the Canon camera are slightly smoother and have very slightly less detail visible when they are scrutinised at 100%. Even when the magnification of the D800's image is reduced so that it matches the size of the 5D Mark III images at 100%, more noise is visible in the Nikon camera's shot.

When the in-camera noise reduction is turned off, or its effects on raw files are removed post-capture, high-sensitivity images from the two cameras look quite different at 100%. While the 5D Mark III's images have a strong hatched texture, comparable images from the D800 suffer from more noticeable chroma noise.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

At more sensible printing sizes, however, both cameras are capable of producing decent results, and ISO 25600 images look OK at A3 (11.69 × 16.54 inches) size.

Apart from the difference in size and detail resulting from the higher pixel count of the D800, images captured at ISO 6400 and below by the two cameras look fairly similar on screen. At high magnification, some areas may be captured better by one camera than the other, and vice versa.

As we might expect, most detail is captured in raw files and the best results are created when the noise reduction level is tailored to each image. Nikon D800 users will find that the supplied software, View NX 2, is sadly lacking in this department, and they must invest in Capture NX 2 or use the latest incarnation of Adobe Camera Raw to adjust noise reduction post-capture.

Video features

Even Canon was surprised by the success of the 5D Mark II's video functionality. It gave keen film makers a high-quality HD video camera at a fraction of the cost of normal broadcast quality models. As a result, it has been used to shoot blockbuster Hollywood films, popular TV shows and news reports, as well as a fair bit of amateur footage.

Naturally, Canon is eager to build on this success with the 5D Mark III, and Nikon wants to carve itself a slice of the market. On the whole the video specification of the 5D Mark III is the same as the Mark II, but (as with the D800) there's a headphone port to enable better sound quality monitoring, and the sound level can be adjusted in-camera.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

One advantage that the Nikon D800 offers over the Canon 5D Mark III is its ability to shoot with multiple frame sizes for different focal length and depth of field effects. There's also a 60p/50p 1280x720 slow-motion mode and clean, uncompressed HDMI output.

Performance-wise, neither camera disappoints and the two produce high-quality footage. As with the stills, the 5D Mark III tends to produce warmer videos than the cooler output from the D800, and noise is more of an issue for the Nikon camera as light levels fall and sensitivity levels rise. Sound quality is also decent, although an external mic is recommended.

Sample images

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

Canon EOS 5D Mark III (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

Nikon D800 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Canon 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

Canon EOS 5D Mark III raw file conversion (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Canon 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

Nikon D800 raw file conversion (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

Canon EOS 5D Mark III (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

Nikon D800 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

Canon EOS 5D Mark III (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

Nikon D800 (Click here to see the full resolution image)

Noise and dynamic range

We shoot a specially designed chart in carefully controlled conditions and the resulting images are analysed using DXO Analyzer software to generate the data to produce the graphs below.

A high signal to noise ratio (SNR) indicates a cleaner and better quality image.

For more more details on how to interpret our test data, check out our full explanation of our noise and dynamic range tests.

We have compared the Canon 5D Mark III's raw files (after conversion to TIFF) with those from the Nikon D800. We processed the raw files with and without noise reduction, for the Canon 5D MK III we did this using the Digital Photo Professional software supplied with the camera, but for the D800 we used Nikon's Capture NX2 which is an optional extra costing around £135 or $132.

Raw (after conversion to TIFF) signal to noise ratio

Canon 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

This chart shows that the Canon 5D Mark III has a better signal to noise ratio across most of the sensitivity range, indicating that images are cleaner at pixel level. Both cameras produce images with a lower signal to noise ratio when noise reduction is turned off. For much of the sensitivity range the 5D MK III's raw files (after conversion to TIFF) with noise reduction turned off are a close match for those from the Nikon D800 with noise reduction set to its default level.

Raw (after conversion to TIFF) dynamic range

Canon 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

Up to around ISO 400 the Nikon D800 leads the way for dynamic range indicating that it is capable of reproducing subtle tonal gradations in highlight and shadow areas. At mid to high sensitivity settings the Canon 5D Mark III's raw files (after conversion to TIFF) have a greater dynamic range than the D800's.

Sensitivity and noise

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

Full ISO 50 image taken with the Canon EOS 5D Mark III, see the cropped (100%) versions from each camera below. The cropped areas are from the darker side of the scene as this is where the cameras struggle the most and more noise is visible.

The images are made from raw files with the noise reduction turned off at the processing stage. The crops are all 900 pixels wide, but because the D800 records larger images, the subjects are bigger in the versions.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III ISO 50

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Nikon D800 ISO 50

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III ISO 100

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Nikon D800 ISO 100

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III ISO 200

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Nikon D800 ISO 200

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III ISO 400

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Nikon D800 ISO 400

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III ISO 800

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Nikon D800 ISO 800

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III ISO 1600

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Nikon D800 ISO 1600

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III ISO 3200

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Nikon D800 ISO 3200

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III ISO 6400

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Nikon D800 ISO 6400

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III ISO 12800

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Nikon D800 ISO 12800

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III ISO 25600

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Nikon D800 ISO 25600

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III ISO 51200

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

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Canon EOS 5D Mark III ISO 102400

Our verdict

Canon's EOS 5D was the first camera that brought full-frame digital photography within reach of enthusiast photographers. When it was replaced by the 5D Mark II, stills photographers were a little underwhelmed by the relatively minor upgrades, but the addition of video technology made it interesting to a new breed of users.

The Canon EOS 5D Mark III builds on what Canon has achieved with the first two incarnations of the 5D series and incorporates technology such as iFCL metering and the DIGIC 5 processor found in its other recent cameras. It also produces superbly sharp and detail-rich images.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

If the Nikon D800 didn't exist, the 22.3 million pixel resolution of the 5D Mark III would seem more than adequate for most people. However, the D800 does exist, and although its 36.3 million pixel sensor requires slightly more careful handling, it isn't as troubled by noise as we might have feared. This, coupled with its class-leading resolving power, impressive dynamic range and lower price, makes the D800 a very attractive option.

However, the fact that the D800 tends to produce more noise in low light - especially when the light is unnatural - and the lower maximum continuous shooting rate mean that it is marginally less versatile than the 5D Mark III.

We also think that Canon has put a little more thought into how professional and enthusiast photographers use their cameras. The 5D Mark III's HDR mode, for example, is much more useful for serious photographers, and the video activation is more comfortably arranged.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III vs Nikon D800

In summary, both cameras are extremely good, and choosing between them isn't easy. It's a decision that is likely to come down to personal preferences for the control arrangements, existing allegiances and the intended use.

Those who shoot in a wide range of conditions, or have a preference for sport and low-light photography, are likely to find they are best served by the Canon EOS 5D Mark III.

But photographers who shoot primarily in good light and who are interested in capturing the maximum amount of detail possible, perhaps specialising in landscape, still-life or macro photography, will find that the Nikon D800 is a better choice.

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